Liam Fox thinks it’s all over and absolute power over trade deals is his. Not yet, Sonny Jim


19 July 2018

He thinks he’s done it. The relief on Liam Fox’s face after his government survived a series of votes on his beloved Trade Bill relatively unscathed was clear.

If this really was all over he would have reasons to be happy. After all, as things stand the Trade Bill gives him truly intoxicating amounts of power.

If Liam Fox wants to do a dodgy deal with Trump he can just do it.If Liam Fox wants to ruin the NHS by letting US multinationals run chunks of it, he can just do it. If Liam Fox wants to use trade deals to burn health & safety rules in a huge bonfire, he can just do it.

OK, the last one depends a bit on what happens with Brexit. But the general reality is that the Trade Bill doesn’t give Parliament any meaningful say on UK trade policy. All the power is in the hands of Liam Fox (on behalf of the Cabinet).

So, no wonder he looks happy. He’s probably already shopping for a big leather chair, an underground lair and white cat to stroke while he enjoys the feeling of absolute power.

But it isn’t over yet. On Tuesday, the House of Commons may have rejected Caroline Lucas’ NC3 amendment on trade democracy 314 to 284. But now it moves to the House of Lords where the government does not have a majority.

Strange times

It is of course absurd that we now depend on that most undemocratic of institutions to win us more democracy. But these are strange times. We are optimistic that the House of Lords will ‘ping pong’ some version of Caroline Lucas’ amendment on trade democracy back to the House of Commons.

This is our last chance to stop this awful bill becoming law. And it really is bad despite the government’s attempts to pull the wool over our eyes with last minute ‘concessions’ that were in fact little more than window dressing.

Unfortunately, some of our allies have fallen for this ploy. 38 Degrees sent out an email suggesting that the trade campaign had won because of Liam Fox’s concessions.

This is wrong. Liam Fox’s concessions do not give us anywhere near even a minimal level of trade democracy.

Caroline Lucas’ NC3 amendment would have guaranteed a parliamentary vote on every trade deal as well as close formal scrutiny at every stage of negotiations (including the initial negotiating mandate) and a significant role for the devolved administrations.

Liam Fox’s ‘concessions’ do not do any of that.

It’s a rollover

First of all, all of his amendments to the Trade Bill apply only to the so-called ‘rollover’ of existing trade deals we enjoy as members of the EU. The changes do not apply to any new deals (i.e. all the controversial stuff like a deal with Trump).  Even on the existing deals, there is still no guaranteed vote for MPs, merely a commitment for ministers to table an ‘explanatory note’ if these deals differ from what we have already and a promise to allow Parliament to have a vote on the ‘implementing legislation’ for them, if this is needed.

That last bit sounds a bit like giving MPs a vote on trade deals. Which is what may have hoodwinked some into thinking this is a major victory. But it isn’t. What it means is that if these trade deals have implications that mean the UK has to change its own primary legislation (most don’t) then MPs will have a vote on changing those laws (not the trade deal itself).

The thing is, MPs will have their hands tied. If the UK has signed the trade deal, it will be treaty-bound to do something, MPs saying no to implementing legislation will just lead to a crisis. So, MPs are very unlikely ever to do this in the rare cases where it might be necessary (indeed, we are not aware of any cases anywhere in the world where this has happened).

And here’s the rub. You don’t need new primary legislation to introduce corporate courts or even necessarily to allow multinationals to have greater access to the NHS. All of this can still be done on Liam Fox’s say-so from the comfort of his shiny new underground lair (OK probably more likely his parliamentary office).

And of course, none of this applies to new deals like any future agreement with Trump or the UK joining the Trans-Pacific Partnership (which is essentially the Pacific version of TTIP without the US involved).

New deals

Now, to be fair to Liam Fox, he did also make a statement outlining what he said his approach would be on these new deals. But even if he keeps his word, what he is offering is not trade democracy at all.

For new deals, Liam Fox has promised to informally allow Parliament to input into the UK’s priorities for negotiation (without giving this consultation legal weight). And he has said that there will be a more “formalised” public consultation process that will allow greater input from civil society, business and others.

This may be a slight improvement on the status quo. But trade democracy it is not. Because Parliament and the devolved administrations still do not get a vote on trade agreements. MPs and their devolved assembly equivalents still won’t have access to negotiation texts (they will merely be vaguely ‘updated’ on progress). And while MPs might be able to vote on any implementing legislation necessary, this is a power that is rarely, if ever, likely to be used given the implications of doing so. Parliament has been given the right to discuss but not a right to decide. And that is not democracy.

So, it is of utmost importance that we campaign hard now to wipe the smile off Liam Fox’s face and ensure that when the House of Lords returns the Trade Bill to the Commons, we beat the government this time and secure true trade democracy.

We may not have won yet but the fight goes on.

 

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